Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 28 November 2008
Last week, one of my best friends died. I first met Patrick Fitzgerald at a meeting of the Oxford Anarchist Group in the first week of term when I went up to university in October 1978. It was in Danny Simpson’s Exeter college room in a house on Turl Street.
We were both 18, but Pat was a seasoned veteran. He’d been an anarchist for all of two years and a university student for one, having started at Keble at a tender age because he was such a brilliant mathematician. And he was rather suspicious of the influx of raw new recruits to the anarchist group from freshers’ week. He sat on Danny’s bed looking sullen, smoking, rigged out in unfashionable denim – flared trousers when flares were out – and a Chelsea scarf. Pat’s style was always his own.
We didn’t make friends at first. We were rivals over several girls – and Pat always won. But, through a shared enthusiasm for pills, booze and rock’n’roll, we bonded. And we became – literally – partners in crime.
I have no idea how he acquired the knack, but as a youth Pat was an accomplished cat-burglar. He was always one for digging up dirt – and one of his main means of doing it when he started out in the late 1970s was the break-in.
He burgled dons who were recruiting for MI5, and wrote up his findings in Back Street Bugle, Oxford’s alternative paper. He burgled the army recruitment office. And he burgled college bars for money – an enterprise that went badly wrong when he and two others were caught red-handed.
When the Oxford University Student Union had a general meeting at which the left hoped it would secure a majority to occupy a building that became the social science department library – the idea was that we’d turn it into a proper central students’ union that put on gigs – it was Pat who waited with the crowbar for the call that never came from the meeting. (He was waiting with Sarah Baxter, now of the Sunday Times, who had a bicycle.) It was Pat too who cut the outside broadcast link from Billy Graham’s Christian revivalist meeting in Oxford town hall that we disrupted as a protest against – well, Billy Graham.
I only once benefited materially from any of this, and only in a small way. The heist – and it was a great one – was of booze from an Oxford college boat clubhouse, the getaway transport a punt on to which crates of summer drinks were loaded before it was inexpertly floated a couple of miles down the river, where a waiting crew spirited the haul to their bedsits in east Oxford. Ten years later there were still unopened bottles of Pimm’s in many former Oxford anarchists’ parents’ drinks cabinets.
Meanwhile, Pat got serious. After he left Oxford, he started a doctorate at the University of Kent but soon decided that his vocation was as an investigative journalist. He did work for various radical magazines – including Tribune from the mid-1980s – and Fleet Street newspapers, but put his main efforts into books. British Intelligence and Covert Action, co-authored with the émigré South African journalist Jonathan Bloch, appeared in 1983. A ground-breaking exposé of secret operations since the second world war, it met a furious response from the political and military establishment, but its accuracy on all its key stories remains unquestioned. In 1987 came Stranger on the Line, co-authored with Mark Leopold, an exhaustive account of the British state’s enthusiasm for phone-tapping, and a side project, The Comic Book of MI5, with illustrations by the Irish cartoonist Cormac.
Pat was an enthusiastic hedonist, and at times in the late 1980s and 1990s he overdid it, but he kept up an impressive journalistic output, covering intelligence and security issues for Tribune and the New Statesman among others and earning money writing business travel guides. He was less obviously prolific in recent years – partly because of lack of outlets, partly because of poor health – but still managed a great deal, most recently doing a substantial body of work on a soon-to-be-published book on the war on terror with Jonathan Bloch and Paul Todd.
He’d not been well for some time – he contracted cellulitis earlier in the year, and the treatment had dragged on and on without apparently working – but his sudden death was a shock to all his friends, not least his partner of 20 years, Leila Carlyle, with whom he lived in east London. Frighteningly intelligent and well informed, immensely funny and above all extraordinarily kind, he will be missed. There’s a wake for him tonight (November 28) in the Calthorpe Arms in Gray’s Inn Road, London EC1, just up the road from Tribune’s old offices.